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800 Words

The Verdict: Oink

July 16, 2006|Dan Neil

As we consider the worst fast-food offering ever, let us begin with the artifact itself: KFC's new Famous Bowls product consists of a plastic tub of mashed potatoes or rice, topped with yellow corn, fried chicken nuggets,

gravy and three varieties of grated cheese. All in one container, all to be consumed as a single homogenous mass, spork after spork of undifferentiated food matter.

And there it sits on my desk, a steaming, sweating pound of food goo that I purchased at a drive-in window (more anonymous that way) for $3.99. Let me tell you, it's one thing to muse upon the Famous Bowls in a detached, ne'er-shall-pass-my-lips sort of way. Quite another to address the product, spork in hand.

And now, in the interests of participatory journalism, I take a bite. Hmmm. Uh-huh. OK. It's like throwing up in reverse.

The French culinary aesthete Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin reminded us that food is culture, and so we have to wonder what he would say about the Famous Bowls and life in this America. The French, after all, knew something about revolting peasants.

Even in a nation that has made the bulk fast-food bolus something of a culinary art, KFC's Famous Bowls are somehow splendidly, transcendently awful. Perhaps it's because, if you retain any of your childhood aversion to foods touching, the Famous Bowls will send you shrieking into traffic. Perhaps it's because it so brazenly exposes its own purpose: to economically pack the gullets of the poor. Gone is even the pretense that someone might eat this for its taste. This is gerbil food for the disenfranchised. One KFC marketing exec, in a moment of linguistic clarity I'll bet he wishes he had back, is quoted as saying the meals are directed at "heavy fast-food users." Never was the connection between fast food and addictive drugs made more explicit.

The Famous Bowls, according to KFC, are designed to lure more lunchtime customers with a meal that has all the goodness of KFC's popular dishes--like gravy--in one convenient, portable, easy-to-inhale serving. And thus the gustatory equivalent of composting.

A couple of questions immediately present themselves: Why not go all the way and top the Famous Bowls with an apple pie and pour Coca-Cola over them? To save customers the struggle to pocket their change at the drive-thru, why not throw it on top as well? If the product developers thought Famous Bowls were a good idea, I have two words for them: chicken smoothie.

You might have expected, after Morgan Spurlock's hilarious and scary "Super Size Me"--the 2004 documentary that charts his declining health on a steady diet of McDonald's--that the fast-food industry would be at least a little self-conscious about such offerings. Actually, no. McDonald's did begin to offer healthier menu options and retired the notorious Super Size option. But what has fueled McDonald's recent turnaround (revenues up 33% in three years) is the company's Dollar Menu, a smorgasbord of slow-acting poisons (trans fats, sugars, sodium and kilo-calories), marketed primarily at teenagers and minorities.

To keep pace with McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's pumped up their dollar-priced menu offerings. Wendy's, deciding its Biggie drink wasn't biggie enough, recently began offering sodas in 42-ounce cups. Great, a beverage I can swim in.

In the face of criticism drummed up by "Super Size Me"--and the 2001 book "Fast Food Nation," the film version of which will appear in theaters this fall--the industry has executed a marvelous bit of jujitsu, marketing even more heinous concoctions as manly, red-state antidotes to froufrou girlie food that would be imposed by the meddlesome big-government lunch lady. I love the Burger King ad for the Texas Double Whopper in which a mob of men burns its tighty whities, waving signs that say "Eat This Meat" and singing, to the tune of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman": "I am man, I am incorrigible, and I'm way too hungry to settle for chick food."

There is no shortage of fast-food travesties by which to be astonished. Consider the Carl's Jr. Double Six Dollar Burger, weighing in at a heart-plugging 1,420 calories, 101 grams of fat and 2.4 grams of sodium. A ballpark in St. Louis offers a bacon-cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut (which doesn't sound half-bad, actually). The Southern California restaurant chain The Hat serves French fries in a paper grocery bag and a Pastrami Burger the size of a moose's head. It's the only place I know where meat is a condiment.

Compared to these offerings, the Famous Bowls (710 calories, with 29 grams of fat and 2 grams of sodium) are relatively healthy. And so what if it's all in one bowl? NASA used to serve astronauts Thanksgiving meals in a squeeze tube.

And yet I remain appalled--as well as a little woozy from all the salt. It's one thing to say Americans eat like pigs, it's another to give it the force of literalism. But that's just what the trough-like Famous Bowls do. If there were a Food Court at The Hague, the Colonel would be in big trouble.

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